Dr. Martens

The usage of Dr. Martens by queer people highlights the duality of identity signaling and identity construction. Gender is made visible through repeated actions within a matrix of social meaning. Through Dr. Martens, queer masculinity is shown to not be innate but to be continually realized and affirmed. The brand’s advertising focuses on their history of subcultural usage solely as an abstract concept, evoked safely within notions of individuality. As such, the brand’s late-2010s recognition of Dr. Martens’ usage in queer communities depicts queer identities as static and apolitical instead of fluid and materially constructed.


Dr. Martens are characterized both by their history and their recognizable appearance. The 1460 8-eye boot, so named for the date of its release (1 April 1960), is the most widespread style of Dr. Martens, with various iterations of the shoe manufactured in the over fifty years since its first release. Traditional subcultural analysis of Dr. Martens boots focuses on how the boot functions as a signifier in a larger system of semiotic variables, signaling group belonging. [1] Subcultures, framed as dissenting and non-conformist in relation to the broader society, use Dr. Martens to consciously perform group affiliations. Skinheads in particular have been associated with Dr. Martens.[2] This semiotic analysis emphasizes the “ritualistic attention”[3] paid to appearance in order to maintain tribal boundaries and establish in-groups and out-groups. However, a subcultural lens does not allow for examination of the variety of modern usages of Dr. Martens, most critically its adoption by the LGBT community[4] in the performance of queer masculinities and the persistent interplay between the brand and the consumer in structuring a modern brand identity reflective of but divorced from traditional subcultural connotations[5]. A semiotic reading of Dr. Martens is not sufficient, as the boot is not just an accessory to identity but a part of identity formation, allowing explorations and self-constructions of masculinity that resist exclusive analysis as signs and allow for a broader analysis of cultural studies in addition to the semiotic.

Semiotics, Subcultures, and Self-Construction

            The semiotic approach to clothing, and to objects more generally, follows literary theorist Roland Barthes’s distinction between parole and langue. While langue encapsulates the communally-controlled governing rules of clothing and how the variations in pieces change the meanings of the ensemble, parole refers to the individual ways of wearing clothes and their usage in self-presentation and performance.[6] However, clothing has a practical purpose as well as a communicative one, as pointed out by semiotician Martin Krampen and communication scholar Sut Jhally.[7] Additionally, unlike other articles of clothing, the shoe has a sense of structure distinct from the body, and “…seems more self-contained than a garment such as a jacket or dress, which is dependent on the body.”[8] This structural independence holds especially true for Dr. Martens, as the stiff leather seems to represent a life distinct from the wearer and an irreducibility to dimensionless sign. The physical structure of the boot parallels the semiotic dimensionality, the polysemy that can be held in the boot. While semiotic analysis is a useful starting point, pieces of clothing are not solely signs and can therefore not be reduced to exclusive signals of identity and group belonging.

Objects are not stagnant but modified and moved through their interactions, and shoes in particular embody close relationships with the wearer. Shoes can shape the foot and be shaped by the foot, and Dr. Martens boots are often purposefully modified. Cultural theory scholar Cath Davies mentions the modification of Dr. Martens by various subcultures as a way to account for the usage of the same boot by disparate subcultural groups: “…whilst many contrasting subcultural gangs have adopted Dr. Martens, their own tribal affiliations are branded on the footwear, utilising subcultural ‘rules’ regarding colour, laces and so forth.”[9] While certainly true for some wearers, this tribal angle does not account for the majority of consumers and reduces the boot to a semiotic signifier. However, the brand and their product are still uniquely positioned as a site of subcultural contact that highlights the relationship between subcultural modification and creative self-expression.

Key to the study of self-construction is Michel Foucault, who coined the term technologies of self. Technologies of self are specific, conscious practices by which subjects constitute themselves through regulating their bodies, thoughts, and behaviors with the goal of transforming themselves in order to attain certain states.[10] Following a structuralist approach, Foucault talks about technologies of self as arising from and mediating the relationship between the interior self and exterior society, with the two defined relationally. Through technologies of self, individuals are able to represent themselves in ways that match their self-understandings in relation to society.[11] Dr. Martens, then, embody an authenticity through becoming[12] that parallels the “…individual idiosyncrasies of usage and of social practices.”[13] Through modification of objects, people modify themselves, allowing for self-realization and realization into subcultures. The Dr. Martens company, aware of the connotations of modification and self-realization, has taken full advantage in their contemporary branding.

Contemporary Branding and Apolitical Rebellion

            In her article on contemporary Dr. Martens branding, Davies analyzes the 2011/12 advertising campaign and unveils a twofold marketing strategy that highlights brand heritage and privileges consumer interaction[14] along with a revitalized brand identity that stresses customization, authenticity, and timeless style.[15]  The subculture Dr. Martens are most commonly associated with is skinheads, initially a working-class movement reasserting masculinity in the face of perceived threats by effeminate fashion and cultural shifts.[16] However, the boots’ “…initial function as workwear… has certainly diminished within the brand’s consumer profile,”[17] and the modern advertising campaign has made no attempts for a direct revival of the working-class association. Instead, Dr. Martens frames itself as self-fashioning and anti-mainstream with strong organizational core values that parallel the strong values of teenage rebellion and expression. As a brand, they are authentic – the essence of the youth struggle for identity – because of their long history of association with youth subculture. By highlighting their history of subcultural usage, Dr. Martens can repackage originality and authenticity without being seen as corporate “subculture vultures”[18] that scavenge the remnants of subcultural cool for resale to the mass market.

At the same time, the brand stresses that they did not historically market to subcultures, but that subcultures simply adopted them. In this vein, the Dr. Martens brand positions itself as a “culturally constructed entity… framing the product in relation to its previous ‘destinations’”.[19] The design process is implied to be shared by the consumer and the producer, and the product itself is imbued with a sense of history. Modification is encouraged by the company – a section of their website entitled “Share Your Style” asks users to send photos of their modified Dr. Martens.[20] This interplay of meaning highlights the negotiated nature of the product’s presentation, following Stuart Hall’s theory of encoding and decoding of meaning wherein the ideological message of a piece of media is not controlled entirely by the media producer but by the audience as well.[21]

The brand apolitically stresses self-expression and heritage while the “…anti-conformity stance, synonymous with previous subcultural traditions, is evoked solely as an abstract concept safely contained within the notion of individuality and creativity.”[22] The campaign does not place consumers in a particular subculture whose history and beliefs the consumers would have to engage with, instead allowing consumers to sample retro youth rebellion. By removing specificity, the brand thus constructs what Davies refers to as a “mythic role for the footwear,”[23] while simultaneously claiming ownership of subcultural discourses via brand heritage.

Gender Construction and Gay Skinheads

            However, queer identity cannot be reduced to a clear subcultural, semiotic analysis. While a part of queer presentation is indeed signaling, queer people also use clothing to construct and realize identities in the vein of Foucault’s technologies of self. Queer theorist Judith Butler addresses this constructed nature of gender in her works, notably Gender Trouble (1990) and Bodies that Matter (1993). For Butler, different contexts and systems, including gender and sex, determine how the body is understood: “bodies only appear, only endure, only live within the productive constraints of certain highly gendered regulatory schemes”.[24] Both social gender and biological sex are constructed, and the process of assigning a sex brings the object into being. For Butler, sex is projected through the manipulation of physical signs like secondary sex characteristics, and there is no way to distinguish between what is materially true and what is culturally contingent, and the body only becomes legible through these signs.[25] Gender is a question of doing, a process that must be repeated over the course of the subject’s life.[26] The adoption of Dr. Martens by the LGBT community, while not widely discussed in the available literature, fits well into theories on the construction of gender through clothing.

Dr. Martens are traditionally masculine shoes and have therefore been most saliently used in the construction and performance of queer masculinities. Theatrical theorist Eleanor Margolies, in her analysis of the usage of shoes in performance, notes that masculine and feminine footwear not only look different but pattern behavior differently. For men, shoes “…tend to be heavier in materials and construction than women’s shoes, providing suitable protection for ‘heavy’ tasks, and producing a ‘heavy’ walk.”[27] It is possible to identify people by the sound of their movements, the rhythm “…made audible and visible in the interaction between the body and objects.”[28] Dr. Martens, as heavy, masculine shoes, allow for experimentation into new rhythms of gender, and the repeated performance of wearing Dr. Martens shapes the process of doing gender, the gendered body made legible through signs.

The fact remains that Dr. Martens, however closely connected to the wearer, are not a part of the body and can be removed, allowing for their manipulation in queer identity formation and presentation. A fascinating example of this negotiated identity is a study conducted by sociologist Kevin Borgeson and criminologist Robin Valeri that investigated the dual gay and skinhead identities of a group of six men in the mid-2000s, before the aforementioned marketing campaign. The study suggests two dominant gay skinhead identities: one focused on the sexual and aesthetic appeal of skinhead culture and the other on the assertion of working-class masculine values. The skins in the study highlight that contrary to popular representations of skinheads, most gay skinhead groups aren’t actively involved with racial hate and disavow the stereotypic racist skinhead image. At the same time, they use anti-feminine language and repeatedly stress that they don’t like effeminate gay men, who they see as threats to the community’s acceptance and safety.[29] As such, gay skinheads disassociate themselves from femininity and associate themselves with the anti-feminine attitudes of traditional masculinity in part to protect themselves.

In many ways, this usage of language is that of image creation complementing their visible physical choices. Dr. Martens are masculine, physical, and can be used in violent actions. For these gay men, Dr. Martens serve to highlight traditional notions of masculinity in line with skinhead ideals. A key usage of Dr. Martens by skins is in a “boot party,” described by one of the men as “when we knock a person onto the ground, and kick the hell out of them with our boots.”[30] Often, this beating is earned because the person is too feminine in presentation or manner: gay-bashing, done by gay men, through the violence they embed in their boots. For some of the skins interviewed, their gay identity was not important to their skinhead one, though the two informed each other – “what is important is being a skin.”[31] Dr. Martens boots straddle the border of gay and skinhead tradition, allowing their wearers to pass between situationally-dependent identities and retain their self-image of masculinity and control.

Conclusion: #worndifferent

            At the same time, gay skins are not the only LGBT people to utilize Dr. Martens in their constructions of identity. One of the most prevalent stereotypes about Dr. Martens boots is that they are the shoe of choice for butch lesbians, a statement that holds some truth. The appeal of the boot is twofold: it is masculine and rebellious, though the two are closely linked for butch women. The boot shapes the body into a desired masculine identity perceived by the wearer as well as those around them. The Dr. Martens brand has promoted their connection to the LGBT community more openly in the last few years, culminating in the 2017 release of a collection of LGBT-themed rainbow boots with proceeds going to the Trevor Project, an LGBT anti-bullying group.[32] Queer-looking people are often featured in their ad campaigns, though their queerness is never made explicit, and masculine-presenting women are common.

One recent advertising campaign is a video titled “#worndifferent,” described on the brand’s website as “our new campaign celebrating diversity and individuality.” The video is 37 seconds long and features a large cast of people engaging in a wide variety of expressive behaviors. Images of cameras, motorcycles, shaved heads, and concerts flash across the screen, with many shots of people dancing in various informal styles. Words in all capital letters overlay on the images, proclaiming “do… rebel… express… style… no right way… no wrong way… just your way.” The video emphasizes the shoes subtly, panning towards or away from them to capture not just the shoe but the vibrant action the shoe enables. The ending shot shows the entire cast of the advertisement wearing an array of vaguely subcultural clothing and walking toward the camera, with the words “worn different” superimposed.[33]

Despite the images of individuality and outcasts, such campaigns follow Davies’s analysis of the 2011/12 campaign – unspecific images of rebellion and subculture, without specificity or radical politics. The campaign presents the Dr. Martens shoes as enabling a generic resistance to cultural norms but remains acceptably revolutionary. Their timely acknowledgment of the role of Dr. Martens in the LGBT community matches this image of acceptable revolution. By 2017, same-sex marriage had been proclaimed a victory of equality under the state, of working within the system to achieve acceptance.[34] Even the title of the campaign – #worndifferent – is reminiscent of the “born different” idea about LGBT identity, wherein gayness or queerness is something innate and should be acceptable to society because it cannot be changed.

Dr. Martens are uniquely positioned as a framer of modern queer identity, and their advertising can reflect their historic usage by LGBT people while retaining a sense of authenticity. Their shoes can be considered authentically LGBT[35] – which Dr. Martens seems to view as accounting for all queer people – because of their history of subcultural association and adoption by people outside of mainstream society. While their modern advertising campaigns highlight an acceptable expression of difference, apolitically situated and palatable, the shoes are not exclusively used as shown in the ads. The modifiability of the boots stressed by the company matches with Butler’s illustration of gender as negotiated and constructed through repeated action. Ultimately, the wearer shapes the boot as much as the manufacturer, and the boot in turn shapes the person. Through Dr. Martens, queer masculinity is shown to not be innate but to be continually realized and affirmed. Dr. Martens allow for self-exploration and self-realization, shaping the identity of the person who wears them and not solely their outward presentation of identity.


[1] Dick Hebdige, Subculture: The Meaning of Style (London: Methuen, 1979).

[2] Martin Roach, Dr. Martens: The Story of an Icon (London: Chrysalis Impact, 2003).

[3] Cath Davies, “Smells like Teen Spirit: Channelling Subcultural Traditions in Contemporary Dr. Martens Branding,” Journal of Consumer Culture 16, no. 1 (February 3, 2014): 193.

[4] While the discussion of who is and is not included in the LGBTQ+ community and the discussion of the usage of “queer” as a reclaimed slur is broad and worthwhile, I will not be able to delve into it. For the purposes of this paper, “LGBT” refers to the mainstream community, often presented as white, family-focused, and capitalist. On the other hand, “queer” will be used as a referent to the work of scholars in the field of queer theory, with the term applying more broadly to all that do not fit into a heteronormative and cisnormative society. I do not include the Q in LGBT not because I do not think it belongs there, but because the sanitization and corporatization of modern LGBT identity have rendered the Q a symbolic inclusion rather than actual solidarity. For more writing on these processes, I suggest queer theorist Jasbir K. Puar’s Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times (2007).

[5] The LGBT and queer communities can be considered subcultures – they are often separate from mainstream society and use semiotic signs to signify group belonging. However, these communities cannot be understood solely through a subcultural lens, especially given the mainstream LGBT community’s increasing acceptance into broader society through appeals to sameness rather than difference (for example, the framing of homosexual desires through the lens of the (re)productive family.

[6] Eleanor Margolies, “Were Those Boots Made Just for Walking? Shoes as Performing Objects in Everyday Life and in the Theatre,” Visual Communication 2, no. 2 (June 1, 2003): 174, https://doi.org/10.1177/1470357203002002003.

[7] Eleanor Margolies, 175.

[8] Eleanor Margolies, 178.

[9] Cath Davies, “Smells like Teen Spirit: Channelling Subcultural Traditions in Contemporary Dr. Martens Branding,” 196.

[10] Michael Foucault, Technologies of the Self (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1988), 18.

[11] Michael Foucault, 20.

[12] Cath Davies, “Smells like Teen Spirit: Channelling Subcultural Traditions in Contemporary Dr. Martens Branding,” 197.

[13] Eleanor Margolies, “Were Those Boots Made Just for Walking? Shoes as Performing Objects in Everyday Life and in the Theatre,” 179.

[14] Cath Davies, “Smells like Teen Spirit: Channelling Subcultural Traditions in Contemporary Dr. Martens Branding,” 203.

[15] Cath Davies, 6.

[16] Kevin Borgeson and Robin Valeri, “Gay Skinheads: Negotiating a Gay Identity in a Culture of Traditional Masculinity,” The Journal of Men’s Studies 23, no. 1 (March 1, 2015): 45, https://doi.org/10.1177/1060826514561975.

[17] Cath Davies, “Smells like Teen Spirit: Channelling Subcultural Traditions in Contemporary Dr. Martens Branding,” 195.

[18] Cath Davies, 204.

[19] Cath Davies, 193.

[20] Cath Davies, 197.

[21] Stuart Hall, “Encoding, Decoding,” in The Cultural Studies Reader, ed. Simon During (London: Routledge, 1993), 90–103.

[22] Cath Davies, “Smells like Teen Spirit: Channelling Subcultural Traditions in Contemporary Dr. Martens Branding,” 198.

[23] Cath Davies, 200.

[24] Anita Brady, Tony Schirato, Understanding Judith Butler (London: SAGE Publications Ltd., 2011), 9.

[25] Anita Brady, Tony Schirato, 34.

[26] Anita Brady, Tony Schirato, 44, 49.

[27] Eleanor Margolies, “Were Those Boots Made Just for Walking? Shoes as Performing Objects in Everyday Life and in the Theatre,” 173.

[28] Eleanor Margolies, 181.

[29] Kevin Borgeson and Robin Valeri, “Gay Skinheads: Negotiating a Gay Identity in a Culture of Traditional Masculinity,” 54.

[30] Kevin Borgeson and Robin Valeri, 56.

[31] Kevin Borgeson and Robin Valeri, 53.

[32] Dr. Martens, “Pride,” 2017, http://www.drmartens.com/us/pride.

[33] Dr. Martens, #worndifferent, accessed April 14, 2018, http://www.drmartens.com/us/.

[34] The corporatization of Pride celebrations is an example of this tension – like with the distinction between “LGBT” and “queer,” I will not be able to go into the complex politics of the issue. Again, at stake is the growing acceptance of certain queer people into the dominant capitalist society while other queer people, especially those holding multiple marginalized identities, remain subjects of violent exclusion.

[35] Here, Dr. Martens’ authenticity is pitted against other corporations’ commodification, the “subcultural vultures” referred to by Davies. Dr. Martens straddles the line between subcultural/queer and mainstream/LGBT through their evocation of subcultural tradition.


Anita Brady, Tony Schirato. Understanding Judith Butler. London: SAGE Publications Ltd., 2011.

Cath Davies. “Smells like Teen Spirit: Channelling Subcultural Traditions in Contemporary Dr. Martens Branding.” Journal of Consumer Culture 16, no. 1 (February 3, 2014): 192–208.

Dick Hebdige. Subculture: The Meaning of Style. London: Methuen, 1979.

Dr. Martens. “Pride,” 2017. http://www.drmartens.com/us/pride.

———. #worndifferent. Accessed April 14, 2018. http://www.drmartens.com/us/.

Eleanor Margolies. “Were Those Boots Made Just for Walking? Shoes as Performing Objects in Everyday Life and in the Theatre.” Visual Communication 2, no. 2 (June 1, 2003): 169–88. https://doi.org/10.1177/1470357203002002003.

Kevin Borgeson, and Robin Valeri. “Gay Skinheads: Negotiating a Gay Identity in a Culture of Traditional Masculinity.” The Journal of Men’s Studies 23, no. 1 (March 1, 2015): 44–62. https://doi.org/10.1177/1060826514561975.

Martin Roach. Dr. Martens: The Story of an Icon. London: Chrysalis Impact, 2003.

Michael Foucault. Technologies of the Self. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1988.

Stuart Hall. “Encoding, Decoding.” In The Cultural Studies Reader, edited by Simon During, 90–103. London: Routledge, 1993.